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Ad Agency’s Solution to Client Pulling Work In-House Sounds Like the Freelancer Model…

It’s inevitable in an economic downturn. Clients using pricey creative agencies dump them and pull the work in-house. OR outsource it, as we’ve happily discussed in this forum (and elsewhere: check out the GREENS course at this link) to a more economical, low-overhead writer and designer team.

Well, thanks again to commercial freelancer Robin Halcomb (who steered me to a cool resource I included in a comment on my last post) for bringing a most intriguing article to my attention. Entitled “In-house and Outsourced Aren’t the Only Options for Your Clients,” and penned by Sharon Napier, the piece first appeared in Advertising Age on 11/2/09.

The premise was simple – and one with all sorts of positive implications for folks like us. Napier, an ad agency professional, established the challenge:

Losing business because a client takes its work in-house can be a very frustrating challenge for a shop that’s put its heart and soul into coming up with innovative ideas. But what agency folks sometimes forget is that a client’s decision to go in-house usually isn’t driven by creativity or quality of work, but instead by the need for a new operating model, lower costs or faster turnaround. We didn’t want to stand by and watch our clients take that work in-house, nor was it in their best interest for us to try to force-fit it into our standard agency model.

Now, read this next part about her proposed solution to this quandary, and tell me if it doesn’t have a familiar ring…

So, a few years ago, we created a second model, one we call the “in-house outsource,” or studio model. How does it work? Like a traditional model, the clients have a dedicated team to serve their business, one that’s steeped in the client’s brand guidelines, process and work flow. However, for the studio model, the process is streamlined.

There are no account executives or trafficking positions; clients work directly with a designer who is responsible for every aspect of the project, from the first request to the work getting out the door, much like having an on-staff designer. The studio team works as an agency within an agency — it has its own leader, its own process, its own job description and career path.

Sounds a whole lot like a simple freelance copywriter/graphic designer team, no? Napier describes a model that meets a client’s need for lower costs and faster turnaround – something many clients in our world have been getting from talented writer/designer teams for a long time.

So, these creative pros know what clients want and have started bending their business model to deliver just that. With us? No bending required. That’s already who we are. And this new evolution on the part of agencies just reaffirms – in case you had any doubts – the fundamental legitimacy of the freelance model.

Of course, Napier’s premise appears to cover several scenarios: 1) clients pulling in-house ALL the business they’re doing with an agency; or 2) clients pulling certain pieces that many agencies long ago deemed not worth pursuing.

As I’ve pointed out in The Well-Fed Writer, while we commercial writers are unlikely to pick up the high-profile branding work from Fortune 500 firms that’s been the domain of Big Advertising (mainly because, let’s face it, the typical writer/designer team can’t deliver everything a full-service ad agency can…), we can certainly cover the, 1) the “collateral” projects agencies don’t want or aren’t set up to handle; and 2) branding work for relatively smaller firms with the bucks to hire that agency, but which are now tightening their belts.

Of course, Napier’s unspoken message – one that can’t help but elicit a smile – is this: Given the client exodus many in our industry have experienced of late, we can’t afford to be as elitist as before. Translation: We need to figure out how to hang on to this business we previously turned up our noses at. And give them credit for adapting successfully, as Napier’s firm certainly has.

Though you have to wonder whether Napier’s clients, once they get a taste of the lower-priced, streamlined business model on some of their work, don’t start wondering – however illogically, perhaps – why that same model can’t be applied to their other work. Something we commercial freelancers, given our cornerstone value proposition, will never have to wrestle with.

Have you run into a similar scenario with your business?

Have you benefited from a client’s belt-tightening to replace a more expensive creative resource?

Have you approached creative firms (e.g., ad agencies, marketing design firms, etc.), to pick up work they don’t want to deal with (and haven’t adapted to be able to handle)?

Is this giving you ideas you hadn’t previously considered?

How Diversified Is YOUR Work “Portfolio”?

The economy is teetering. Huge financial institutions are crashing and burning. The government, afraid of the ripple effects of their demise, is debating a huge bailout. Unemployment is at its highest level in years. A lot of people struggling out there. And, through all this, happily, I’m busier than ever and enormously grateful I’m a freelancer. My feeling of “job security” is mighty high right about now. Why? Because I have income coming from many, many directions.

Good financial planners live by the mantra of “diversification.” Spread out your money across a broad array of investment vehicles, and you spread out your risk. Same with your work life. Put all your eggs in one work basket (i.e., a full-time job), and if tough times hit, you could lose all the eggs. Hence, the innate logic of the freelance model with its “multiple-clients” feature (and, yes, I know, freelancing is neither feasible nor a psychological fit for everyone, but I’m just sayin’…)

Those with income from a variety of avenues will simply weather economic storms better than most. Right now, I’ve got about 10 commercial writing clients I’m working with. Some big. Some small. But between all of them, they’ve kept me hopping. Love the variety. And I love even more the fact that each client doesn’t have to provide me a bunch of work for me to eat well. Add to that income from my book-related ventures – much of it of the blessed passive variety – and offshoot businesses: coaching, speaking, seminars, articles, etc., and life is good.

Yes, this has been a 15-year process – though the book side of things only the last eight – but it all starts somewhere. And I’m here to tell you: Life can be pretty cool, varied, interesting and lucrative when you’ve got lots of pots boiling on your professional stove.

Not surprisingly, it usually starts with having some specialized expertise or knowledge that’s valuable enough to enough other people to make it worth “monetizing” into books, ebooks, coaching, speaking, seminars, etc. Or simply a skill/talent that can command a healthy price on the market.

If you have multiple stream of writing-related income, what are they and how did they come about?

And if so, any suggestions/cautions/gushing reports to those considering it?

If you aren’t diversified as yet, but are pondering it, what possibilities have you considered?